As they head off to the season-ending state hoops tournament for a second straight year, the Nikiski girls are hoping to cap an unexpectedly successful year with a ninth state title in school history.
But chasing a championship for the sake of winning is not the only thing motivating the Bulldogs.
For senior Rachel Thompson, who grew up watching her older sister, Hannah, win a state crown with the Bulldogs in 2006 under the guidance of Nikiski coaching legend Ward Romans, the thought of adding her name to the list of Nikiski’s sporting greats keeps her hungry to win.
“The last banner up there was my sister’s junior year,” Thompson said. “That’s a really long time for a women’s program in Nikiski to have gone (without a state title).”
For junior teammate Alison Litke, it’s a chance to redeem herself under the bright lights on the big stage.
“My memory from state last year was just being really frazzled,” Litke said. “I remember right after state, promising myself that that wouldn’t happen again. It completely ruined my play.”
“Frazzled” might be an appropriate word for a wild week of hoops action known as March Madness Alaska. The Class 3A tournament tips off Thursday, and the Nikiski girls begin with a rematch against the team that ended their season one year ago, the Valdez Buccaneers. The two teams face off at 1 p.m. at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.
Nikiski coach Scott Anderson said the mantra he brings to the big dance is the same that he uses with the Nikiski football team in the fall.
“One of the things we talked about is playing as long as you possibly can,” Anderson said. “For us, that would be that last Saturday of the tournament. If we can achieve that goal, we’d be pretty satisfied on the season.”
One thing every Nikiski player can agree on is a motivating factor this year is the idea that no other team on the 3A level believed the Bulldogs would be back.
Last year, the Bulldogs returned to the big dance for the first time in five years, but inexperience and youth resulted in a two-and-out tournament. A 20-win season ended with two straight losses in the state tournament, and Nikiski graduated four key starters in the spring: Alyssa Darch, Jodi Cook, Emily Lynch and Katie Costello. The team was left to search out a new identity, since three of those seniors were also the three tallest on the team, topped out by Darch at 5-foot-11.
“The expectations were to have no expectations,” Thompson said. “Coach said he’d be happy if we just came in, did our best, try to win as many region games as we can and see where it goes from there. … There weren’t any expectations to be this powerhouse.”
But the momentum began shifting back in Nikiski’s favor starting with a statewide basketball camp at Colony High School in June. It was there that Thompson and her teammates realized that they could still compete with any team in the region, after a few close scrimmages with Anchorage Christian Schools and Grace.
“We competed with teams we didn’t think we would,” Thompson said. “We had an idea of what we were going to be like. We knew, but no one else knew.”
But they would still need to overcome a lack of size, as 5-foot-8 became the new high standard on the team, held by four players including Thompson and Litke.
“If a shot went up last year, it was always, ‘Oh Alyssa’s got it,’” Thompson said. “This year, it’s everyone for themselves in the rebounding game. Our successes come from teamwork. We know where we’re going to be and what time we’re going to be there.”
That trust and ability to coordinate on offense and defense shot the Bulldogs to a 16-6 overall record and 7-4 Southcentral Conference mark in the regular season. It was enough for the top seed in the conference, which allowed them a bye day for the Southcentral Conference tournament last weekend. The squad then locked up a state berth with a Friday semifinal win over Seward, but lost to Homer in Saturday’s final 44-41.
Thompson leads her team in every statistical category except blocked shots, with 16.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.1 steals per game.
Litke ranks second on the team behind Thompson in points per game (7.3), and has gone from a bench player that occasionally started to a key cog in the machine. Litke said she is happy to be one of five starters on a deep team.
“I think it’s just a lot harder for teams to guard us if everyone’s contributing,” Litke explained. “I don’t think it’s a lead role, I think we’re just contributing a lot more.”
Thompson added that junior Hallie Riddall and sophomore Ayla Pitt have also made vast improvements to help the team to the No. 1 seed this year.
Coach Anderson said the biggest difference he has seen has been in the cohesiveness and efficiency of play.
“One of the big differences this year is the girls have really bought into the idea of team,” Anderson said. “Not that we didn’t do that last year, but this year they’ve taken that to another level, they really depend on each other, and they’re just a real cerebral group.
“They’re the ultimate definition of team.”
Thursday’s first-round matchup with Valdez brings back memories of the 54-45 loss that the Bucs handed to Nikiski last year at state, a loss that ended the Bulldogs season right on the spot. Valdez rolled to a 15-5 regular season record and earned its way into the big dance as the top seed out of the Aurora Conference, getting a win over Hutchison in the region championship game. Valdez is also ranked in the Alaska coaches poll as the top 3A girls team.
To make things worse for Nikiski, the Bucs graduated only one senior, and they return this year with senior threat Marian Wamsley, who is currently averaging over 13 points and eight rebounds per game for Valdez, and is shooting 59 percent from the floor. Wamsley has already committed to playing college hoops at UAF.
“A lot of the coaches think pretty highly of them,” Anderson said. “They have most of their players back, big and fast, good shooters. That usually equals a good team, so the recipe to be successful is to focus on doing what we do well. Take care of the ball, be aggressive, attack the basket, keep our eyes up and reduce our turnovers.”
Valdez freshman Makenzi Mott has also come aboard this season and is averaging over 11 points and six rebounds per game, which equals double trouble for the Bulldogs.
“We know they’re gonna try and push the pace, and usually we’re the ones trying to do that to other teams,” Thompson said. “But in this case, we want to slow them down. If we play fast-paced in this game, it’ll be playing right into their hands.”
The opposing three teams on Nikiski’s side of the state bracket are squads that have not played the Bulldogs this year. The opposite side of the bracket, however, feature teams that Nikiski is familiar with, including Southcentral foes ACS and Homer.
The Bulldogs split 1-1 against ACS this season with a 26-24 win in late January and a 38-29 loss in their regular season finale, but Homer has become a worrisome trend for Nikiski this year, as the Mariners are still the only conference squad that the Bulldogs have yet to overcome. In three matchups this year — including the region championship — Homer is 3-0 against Nikiski, but all three have also been close games, with an average margin of victory of 4.6 points.
Thompson said the trio of losses against Homer has not been for lack of effort, but rather poor shooting on Nikiski’s part.
“It’s not that we can’t play with them, our shooting hasn’t been on,” she said. “I know we have five great shooters on the court.”
“I think it’s mostly that the shots get knocked away,” Litke added. “They play really well, but even layups, we had trouble making those.”
Coming from a coaches perspective, Anderson is not worried.
“I think we’re due for a great shooting game,” he said. “It’s been a couple games since we really shot the ball well.”
Homer coach Chad Felice said his Mariners squad will be ready either way.
“We match up well with each other,” Felice said. “I don’t really know, our girls just believe.
“We go out and play hard, with nothing to lose. To beat a good, scrappy Nikiski team three times in a year is a pretty good accomplishment.”
Homer begins its tournament with an 8:30 p.m. Thursday matchup with the Hutchison Hawks, the second seed out of the Aurora Conference.
Felice, a first-year coach that originally hails from the Syracuse region of New York state, said early in the season, “Winning regions would be special. We want to finish atop the league, go to state and make some noise.”
It appears that they are making noise.
The Mariners earned their first state berth since 2006, back when Homer played at the Class 4A level alongside the likes of Soldotna and Kenai Central. Even for a coach new to the Alaska scene, Felice understood the magnitude of returning to the big dance.
“It’s a huge accomplishment, just going to state is big, but winning regions at home is huge too,” Felice said. “We made those our goals. Now we’re on to our third goal.”
That, of course, is to claim the big prize.
Felice said he asked the Homer principal, Doug Waclawski, when the last time the Homer girls clinched their ticket to state as the conference champions, and even he had to look it up. He still hasn’t found an answer. But winning the Southcentral crown on a Saturday night on the Mariners home floor? That was as big as it could have gotten for the small town with the famous spit.
The journey leading up to that long overdue region crown started with Felice’s attempt to bring order to a team that has seen three coaches in the last three years.
The team went through its trials and tribulations. Homer struggled through the month of January that saw them go 1-5, with losses to region opponents Seward, Grace and ACS.
“It was a big learning curve,” Felice said. “We spent a lot of time learning to play as a team and learning a new system.”
However, once the Mariners adapted to the system that Felice introduced, their fortunes began to turn. Homer rebounded strong with an 8-2 record in the month of February, including several wins against those same teams that had beaten them previously.
“I think we got comfortable with each other,” Felice said. “One night we can have someone that scores 30 (points) or we could have a balanced team in scoring.”
Featuring a starting lineup of seniors Larsen Fellows and Shelby Alexander, and juniors Madison Akers, Aurora Waclawski and Kayla Stafford, there has been no shortage of natural talent. Akers, Fellows and Alexander bring size to the team with each listed at 5-10, while Stafford brings previous state experience from her days at 1A school Nikolaevsk, and Waclawski brings a middle distance running pedigree of fitness.
Akers finished the regular season as one of the top scorers in the conference, averaging nearly 17 points and nine rebounds per game, and is shooting an astonishing 63 percent from the floor.
“She’s a phenomenal player, but also a phenomenal leader,” Felice said. “A very coachable kid. I changed everything around, and she could’ve not gone with that.”
Hutchison, a squad that finished 17-7 overall in the regular season, is bringing with them leading scorers Taylor Hasting, Elly Veazy and Ashley Stark, a trio of players that finished the season shooting over 40 percent from the floor. Hasting leads the team in points per game with 11.2.
Felice said he does not plan on changing anything up with his team, believing that their fundamental play will carry them.
“We believe we can win it,” Felice said. “We’re not lying down.”